Let’s get pregnant, shall we?
At forty-one and forty-seven respectively, Rachel Biegler (Kathryn Hahn) and Richard Grimes (Paul Giamatti) are against the proverbial clock when it comes to having children. With her novel about to be published, his pickle business sustaining him after his successful off-Broadway theater troupe disbanded, and a rent-controlled New York City apartment keeping them warm, the time to finally make a go of it has arrived. But things aren’t going very well. Both have their reproductive organs called into question, the adoption process is moving at a snail’s pace, and they’ve been burned before where surrogacy is concerned. Their last hope is IVF (in vitro fertilization) and the potential of it only working with a donor egg. The stress has them perpetually on-edge, each mounting “failure” taking its toll.
It’s a premise ripe for heavy drama with relationship frustrations, familial conflict, and abject despair thanks to the world seemingly stacked against them. And there are moments in Private Life that will devastate thanks to the visible emotional and psychological scars numbing Rachel and Richard from the love they once shared so deeply. The subject matter is intense in a way that leaves both these characters naked to the world as they air grievances at holiday get-togethers, the doctor’s office, and the street and writer/director Tamara Jenkins could have leaned on that sense of vulnerability to tell this story with a darkened edge of futility. Yet she injects an infectiously charming humor instead. She lets them acknowledge the absurdity of their situation and allows their hearts to prevail.
That humor is there from the beginning with Richard’s infuriating ability to be pragmatically nonplussed and Rachel’s nerves taking manic leaps to the worst possible association whatever new word thrown her way conjures. Add an almost surreally laidback gynecologist (Denis O’Hare‘s Dr. Dordick) singing along to his progressive rock favorites as he inserts a fertilized embryo into Rachel’s uterus and you start to understand every expression of dumb-founded mortification that lands on Hahn’s and Giamatti’s faces. These are two professionals toeing that delicate balance of comedic timing and dramatic gravitas like tightrope walkers. They imbue these roles with an authentic awkwardness that ensures they somehow remain relatable during those moments when they draw upon their robust liberal arts backgrounds to incredulously name-drop literary legends in their insults.
I think a big part of their success lies in the run-time. If Jenkins wanted to create a farcical laugh, she could have cut a good forty minutes out by focusing on the crazy situational centerpiece of asking their niece, by marriage, Sadie (Kayli Carter) to be their egg donor. Make this co-ed a slapdash counterpoint steeped in a silver spoon upbringing to their middle-aged bohemian lifestyle—the comic relief diving into a scenario she cannot comprehend with set pieces created around her naiveté. By using the two hours she has to flesh out so much of this trio’s characterizations before even thinking about this journey they will soon take together, Jenkins is able to shoulder the weight of this collective undertaking with unavoidably complex emotions.
There are consequences to this ask that go well beyond the promise of Rachel and Richard having a child. Sadie is still a teenager struggling to find an identity under the watchful and forever disappointed eye of her mother (Molly Shannon‘s Cynthia). Every time it appears she understands the ramifications of her non-biological cousin being her half-biological son/daughter, she drops a totally earnest line of dialogue to Rachel about the baby being “theirs.” Jenkins puts numerous scenes that start on a path of hilarity only to end with this type of soberly crushing reality their extremely complicated lives attract now. Rather than diffuse severity with a glib remark, she breathes truth into hypotheticals. And she refuses to diminish anyone’s opinion. Characters disagree, but nobody’s made to feel invisible.
Jenkins invests too much time in her characters’ three-dimensionality to do that. Charlie Grimes (John Carroll Lynch) is literally here to connect Rachel and Richard to Cynthia and Sadie, but he still proves an integral piece to the elaborate puzzle whether effortlessly playing the humorously neutral party or the sympathetic and caring husband. Even Sadie’s half-sister Charlotte (Emily Robinson) is supplied agency and ambition by letting her minimal interactions with her family say as much about herself as they do them. That’s the difference between straight comedy and light-hearted drama. One intentionally draws stereotypes so we can dispose of peripheral characters while the other skillfully ensures everyone is included for a reason. Everyone here is crucial to the main trio no matter how much screen-time they’re ultimately given.
And this is important since those three contend with so much. Jenkins has us laugh at their caution and anxiety with each other in order to make them endearing enough to understand that their missteps and inability to mask true feelings with decorum exemplifies their honesty. When Rachel shuts down with angry disappointment towards Sadie for being late, we don’t blindly assume she’s overreacting because we’ve experienced what she’s sacrificed to get here. When Richard stares out into space and verbally explains how he cannot comfort his wife because of his own despondency, we give his callousness a reprieve because he’s gone through the emotional wringer too. We know these characters on an intimate level so the tough scenes can exist with contextual introspection and not knee-jerk vitriol.
The script therefore provides the room to really become these characters, but a ton of credit belongs to Carter, Giamatti, and Hahn for running with it. They know exactly when to add some embellishment (and Jenkins an extra beat of self-aware embarrassment through it) and also when to dial things down to support the heft of a given circumstance. Giamatti and Hahn have a brilliantly layered rapport that allows them to call each other out and incessantly argue in ways that never subvert their characters’ love. His Richard may often be used as a rock to lean on or foot-in-mouth catalyst for many conflicts, but you shouldn’t underestimate his craft. It’s tough not to, though, when placed beside a career-defining turn from Hahn. She’s absolutely magnificent.
courtesy of Netflix